Cheat Sheet | Some help to smooth out your sander purchases


For especially fine wood pieces, sanding by hand is a good idea. But for big jobs that require more than a few light passes over the surface, a power sander is the way to go.

Need to know: Sanders come in several varieties: belt, detail, finish, and random orbit.

Belt loop: Maureen Silber, Black & Decker's manager for corded tools, says belt sanders handle large areas through "rough, yet fast removal of material." But some weigh 11 pounds or more. Lift models at the store, then choose the heaviest you can handle comfortably.

Details, details: Detail sanders offer light to medium removal of material, and also let you shape whatever you're sanding, Silber says. They usually come with several attachments for getting into tight spots.

Finish line: Finish sanders are best for surface preparation in fine-finish applications or for smoothing rough surfaces, she says. One-quarter-sheet finish sanders are compact and easy to handle; one-third-sheet sanders are a little larger but still maneuverable.

Operating orbits: A random-orbit sander offers the ability to remove paint, varnish or stain quickly through what Silber describes as the "aggressive sanding of rough surfaces." But because of the random motion, no swirl marks are left on the wood surface. This type of sander "mimics hand sanding" and provides a nice finish, says Jon Van Bergen, a product manager for Ridgid Tool.

If you want to switch easily from quick material removal to fine-finish work, a random-orbit sander with variable speeds should be your choice. If fast paper change and the ability to work with hook and loop and pressure-sensitive adhesive paper are important, go with a random-orbit sander. Look for a unit with an on-board vacuum adapter, so you don't have to stop and put one on before hooking it up to a vac.

Pardon my dust: Philip Branker, product manager for Skil Power Tools, suggests buying sanders that come with dust-sealed switches, which "ensure a longer tool life by keeping dust out of the internal electrics." He adds that dust canisters are better than dust bags for keeping a project area as clean as possible.

Get a grip: Go for a comfortable grip in multiple orientations. "A soft-grip top usually helps reduce vibration and provides a surer grip," says Van Bergen.

Good advice: Think light and compact. The smaller and lighter the sander, the easier it is to maneuver around the surface you're working on, Branker says.

High speed is used to remove large amounts of material, while low is required for a smoother finish, Silber says.

True grit: Use 60-grit coarse sandpaper, Silber says, on hardwood flooring and to grind down badly scratched surfaces. Move the sander across the grain for quickest removal. For initial smoothing of wood, 100-grit medium sandpaper is best. Move the sander in the direction of the wood grain for the smoothest surface.

To put a finish smoothness on wood surfaces, prepare wood for staining, or smooth wallboard joints, use 150-grit fine sandpaper. To smooth stained wood before varnishing, or between coats of varnish, use 220-grit extra-fine paper.

Accessory issues: Find out whether the sander you're considering comes with a case or bag to store things in.

Amperage is relatively unimportant with sanders, but it is a consideration; look for a model with a permanent magnet motor that won't bog down as easily under load.

Prices: The range is $50 to $200, more for professional-quality machines.

Want Alan J. Heavens' advice on a home-improvement project or purchase? E-mail him at, or write him at The Inquirer. Box 8263, Philadelphia 19101.